Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Catholic High Schools and the Parish, Part Two: The Meddling Pastor?

In the old days, the pastor took responsibility for the Catholic education of the children in his parish through eighth grade.  After that (unless the parish also had its own high school) it was up to the various orders of brothers and nuns and priests who ran the Catholic high schools to take over this task.  Some Catholic high schools were better than others, some had better reputations for academics or athletics or all-around prestige, but few parents argued over whether their children were better trained in Catholicism at one Catholic high school versus another.  Brother Joseph died and was replaced by Brother Jonathan, Sister Mary Margaret finally turned the reins over to Sister Margaret Mary, but pastors and parents never bothered to check the religion teachers' credentials for teaching religion, to see if Sister Margaret Mary was more faithful to the Church than Sister Mary Margaret.

This scenario no longer exists, and yet two residual tendencies endure.  First, many Catholic high schools continue to expect pastors and parents to place unquestioning trust in the fidelity of their religion teachers and campus ministry staff.  (Just ask a few straightforward questions and poke around a bit and see how welcoming and open are the responses you receive.)   Second, many pastors themselves consider it rather impertinent to meddle in the affairs of the nearby Catholic high school.  Mind your own business.  And busyness.  There is enough occupying their attention around the parish for pastors not to stick their noses into another Catholic institution's business.

All of this is perfectly reasonable ... but who is overseeing the sound transmission of the Catholic faith to the high school students who, whether they know it or not, or like it or not, are still members of the parish and still under the pastoral care of their parents and their pastors?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Catholic High Schools and the Parish, Part I: A Few Random Questions to Get the Discussion Going

This week, I will be examining some aspects of the relationship between a Catholic parish and the Catholic high schools where that parish's young people are enrolled.

First of all, is there a relationship?  As I begin my assignment this summer as Pastor of Transfiguration Parish in Oakdale, Minnesota, I am eager for a most active relationship with Hill-Murray School, Cretin-Derham Hall High School, Saint Agnes High School, and the other Catholic high schools attended by Transfiguration's youth. 

I am sure that these high schools are eager to have a positive relationship with our parish, and that they expect to foster an unambiguous Catholic vision, presented to us by the Church and, locally, by Archbishop Nienstedt, for a sound Catholic education and formation.

I do not intend to devote enormous resources to the Catholic education of our young parishioners through eighth grade, and then pay no attention to the religious results of their next stage of faith formation.

Here are some of the questions I will ask our local Catholic high schools:

1. What statistical evidence do you have that your graduates attend Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation more frequently than those young Catholics who attended non-Catholic high schools?

2. What statistical evidence do you have that your graduates observe the Catholic moral directives regarding sexual morality, temperance, and detachment from worldliness more faithfully than those who attend non-Catholic high schools?

3. Do your religion teachers and campus ministers have a proven track record of leading my young parishioners to a more knowledgeable, positive and committed identity as Catholics, including a mature obedience to the Pope, the Magisterium, and the countercultural teachings of the Church regarding materialism, marriage and family life.

4. Have your graduates developed habits of traditional Catholic spirituality, including devotion to the Blessed Mother and the Saints, to the Eucharist, to asceticism in their lifestyle choices.

5. How many of your graduates have entered the seminary or religious life in the past 20 years?

Ah, just a few random questions ... and tomorrow, we will consider why so few pastors ask such questions.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why I Preached What I Preached Last Evening

[Listen to "Fr. Baer's homily from 8/28/2010" at www.transfigurationmn.org/worship/Audio.Homily.htm]

This Sunday's Gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14) lends itself to a nagging homiletical treatment.  Indeed, if not careful, we may find ourselves reduced to preaching condescending, moralizing, even whining homilies week after week. Parishioners can take only so many "lettuce" homilies ("let us do this-and-that," "let us be nicer, humbler, kinder, gentler," "let us try harder, let us run faster, let us jump higher." 

The hearer becomes sick and tired of lettuce.

In my opening comments about the parishioner with the tomatoes, I attempted two things: First, I sought to acknowledge that I, like everyone else, tend to consider the worth of each member of the parish according to what they can do for me, even if it is as simple as providing me with fresh produce from their garden.  Second, I wanted to highlight the fact that this tendency to give attention only to those who might do some good for me is not a habit that occurs only in the profound  moments of life, but is likely happening over and over again in my day-to-day affairs.

My concluding challenge to the parishioners, to choose to "waste" a few minutes of time this weekend with someone who, at least ostensibly, could not do something good for them in return, was an attempt to avoid the soft, moralizing, "now then, don't you feel vaguely worse about yourself now that you've listened to this" finale that homily topics like this often conclude with.

If we are going to ask our listeners to change their way of life as disciples of Jesus Christ, in light of His Gospel, let's avoid smothering them with the condescending, tut-tutting, furrowed-brow treatment.

Instead, give them a concrete way to respond.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Augustine and the Avuncular Role in a Youth's Conversion

Who converted Saint Augustine to the Catholic Faith? 

Well, God did, of course  But who else was an instrument of divine intervention in that process?  Certainly Augustine' mother, Saint Monica ranks high.  Yet, after he wandered away from his mother's instructions and tearful prayers, seemingly forever, there were others whom God would place in his path.

The word "avuncular" means to act like an uncle.  Acting like an uncle means having a close personal relationship with a young person, a relationship of trust, of counsel, of influence.  Many cultures throughout history have recognized that, when young people reach a certain age, they become resistant to the advice and direction of their parents, not so much because their parents are giving bad advice or guiding them in the wrong direction, but because, well, they're parents!  At that point, wise mothers and fathers have sought to bring others into their children's lives, whether it be uncles, aunts, godparents, "compadres," "madrinas," and so on.  Among Augustine's "compadres" was quite a godly father indeed: Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who baptized him.

Yesterday afternoon I attended a summer scrimmage match between the University of Saint Thomas football team, whom I am honored to serve as Chaplain, and the team from Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota.  (Hmm, Saint Thomas Aquinas versus Martin Luther ... now there's an idea for a future blog posting.)  I was in the stands next to a Lutheran woman whose son is a newly arriving freshman with the Tommies.  I introduced myself and, in the course of the conversation, mentioned to her that I would be leading a weekly Bible Study with some members of the the team on Sunday nights this fall.  She smiled, shook her head and noted that, unfortunately, she didn't think that her son would be interested.  I responded by telling her that this didn't surprise me.  Nevertheless, I have seen how the new players are often surprised to learn that some of their biggest, best, and "baddest" senior teammates are also very serious about their Christian faith, and not at all ashamed to let others know about it.  The mom's eyes brightened and she commented, "Actually, that really would make a difference for my son."

If you are a parent who despairs of your recalcitrant son or daughter ever returning to the Faith, don't give up.  Pray, and keep on praying!  And don't forget to pray for the Lord to bring someone into their lives who will speak the truth to them.  Yes, the same, Catholic truth that you've spoken to them time after time throughout their childhood, but truth that, in this timely moment, might pierce their hearts   --  hearts that are "restless until they rest in Thee"  --  spoken by a godly friend, a Catholic teammate, a teacher, a pastor, an "uncle" in the truest sense of the word.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Confession and the Tears of Saint Monica

When I was studying the Sacrament of Penance in seminary, no one told me that many a Confession would be followed by tears. 

I am not referring here to tears of contrition.  Rather, they are the tears of mothers and fathers and grandparents, grieving for their family members who no longer practice the Faith.  The Absolution and Dismissal having been concluded, I am ready for the next Penitent, but then come those words, "Father, this is not about Confession, but there is something else that I am just so broken up about, I don't know what to do." 

No two families are exactly alike.  Nevertheless, many Catholics today have children, grandchildren, in-laws who were raised in the Faith, perhaps with years of Catholic schooling, and yet are no longer practicing the Faith, no longer raising their children in the Church.

And so we weep.

Two words of counsel.  First, talk to your priest about it.  Again, no two families are alike, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to bring loved ones back to the Church, but many pastors have gained tested wisdom over the years about how to help the lost sheep find their way back to the fold.

Second, talk to Saint Monica about it.  Cry out to her, even as she cried out to the Lord to save her wayward son, Augustine.  Through her intercession, Christ will bring you wisdom.  Christ will bring you hope.  Christ will extend His grace to your lost family members to bring them back to Himself.

Don't stop praying, and a few tears won't hurt, either!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

College Students and the Parish, Part Four: Pre-Season Poll

What are the Top 5 Newman Centers in the U.S.? 

I'm no expert, but here's my list:

#5: University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
#4: Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.
#3: University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, IL.
#2: Texas A&M, College Station, TX.

And the best of the best:

#1: University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE.

Why do I think so highly of these five Newman Centers?  They are faithful to the Church, they are evangelizing students to Christ and to radical discipleship as Catholics, the Sacraments are flourishing there, they have solid Priests in leadership, they are fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life and to heroic, godly marriages.

Many of these strong Newman Centers have a chapter of FOCUS ("Fellowship of Catholic University Students") associated with them.  FOCUS is an outstanding, rapidly expanding Catholic ministry on dozens of American campuses that is developing an impressive track record for strengthening the Catholic faith of thousands of college students.  If your son or daughter is choosing which public university to attend, find out if FOCUS (http://www.focusonline.org/) is on campus.

What do you think?  Do you know any Newman Centers or Catholic Campus Ministries on public universities that you think should crack the Top 5?  Go ahead and send in your favorites and, perhaps, say a bit about why they rank so highly.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

College Students and the Parish, Part Three: When They're Back Home

Most college students return home several times each year, for Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Summer break.  Do they find a ready welcome back at their home parish?

Here are three homecoming ideas:

1. Get the college students together with the parish youth group.  High school students are fascinated by college, and by college students.  They are eager to hear all about life on campus.  Let's use that to the Lord's advantage.  Get your returning college students over to the parish youth group, the Confirmation retreat, the high school Religious Ed classes.  Invite them to speak about what their Catholic faith means to them as a college student, how they've struggled to make Sunday Mass a priority and to keep their morals and relationships in line with Christ's commandments.  I guarantee that your high school students will be listening attentively.

2. Get the college students over for a home-cooked meal.  Better yet, serve the meal at the home of one of your college student's parents.  And be sure to get the pastor over for dinner that night as well.  After a semester or two of endless feeding at the campus cafeteria trough, it is no surprise that college students return with a newfound appreciation for home cooking.  They are eager to socialize with their old high school friends, but they're short on cash and, thus, quite willing to visit a real home with a real kitchen, a real fireplace, a real family. 

And the pastor?  He will be amazed at how much his young parishioners are eager to see Father again, to discuss their experiences at the Newman Center and in philosophy class.  Parents of college students have noted this wonderful transformation for years: When formerly taciturn children come home from their first semester in college, they often surprise their elders with a maturing capacity for thoughtful conversation and even reflective faith sharing. 

3. Ask them if anything's been stirring in their hearts regarding a vocation.  Granted, most Catholic college students are not thinking about joining the seminary or the convent anytime soon.  But many of them are thinking and praying about the big questions of life and faith, now that they are in the big world on their own.  Every pastor should meet with every one of his college-age parishioners at least once a year while they are home. 

Several years ago, the Knights of Columbus conducted a comprehensive study of newly ordained priests throughout the United States to examine which factors had led to their priestly vocations.  Can you guess the #1 factor?  The longer a pastor was serving in his parish, the more likely it was that his parish would foster vocations.  It makes sense: The future priest knew his pastor through all of the ups and downs of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.  When that young man finally began to consider a priestly vocation, the old pastor was still around.  A wise and stable pillar.  A trusted spiritual counselor.  A father.

One final note: When men and women serving in our armed forces return to our parishes, I trust that we welcome them back with honor and gratitude.  Likewise, many of our Catholic college students are engaged in spiritual warfare every day on their campuses as they seek to live their faith and share their faith.  Let's remember them, and honor them, on the homefront.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

College Students and the Parish, Part Two: A New Effort to Bridge the Gap

The bridge between the home parish of Catholic college students and their new campus has often been washed out at each end:  On the parish end, no one seemed to be tracking the graduating seniors who were going off to college.  On the campus end, no one seemed to be tracking the newly arriving Catholic freshmen.

And the results are nothing to be proud of: Fewer than 20 percent of Catholic college students attend Mass after their first year.

And now, some good news: Enter the "College Connection for Catholics" (CCC) program, whose goal is to help the 1.25 million U.S. Catholic students who graduate from high school each year to find their way to greater participation in the life and mission of the Church during their college years.

Mrs. Judy Cozzens, chair of College Connection for Catholics, is dedicated, and realistic, "We're trying to increase the faith participation of young people in the Church, and in order to do that we have to fight for their attention, just like everybody else has to fight.  We have to make sure we're in the game."

This past spring, members of a dozen Serra Clubs throughout Minnesota gathered graduating seniors' names, addresses, and information on the colleges they were planning to attend from their parents, parishes, and schools.  The Serrans then sent each student a packet with information about the Newman Center, campus ministry, Catholic student groups, and parishes on or near that student's campus.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the "bridge," student information was compiled on a database set up through National Evangelization Teams ("NET") Ministries in West Saint Paul, Minnesota, and then was sent to the campus ministry or parish at the student's new college.

Hats off to Judy Cozzens (proud mom of Fr. Andrew Cozzens), to the ever-inventive Serra octogenerian, Mr. Donald Traxler (651-699-7827, traxlerdonald@msn.com) and to all of the folks with Serra and NET Ministries for this pioneering effort.

As I noted in my blog posting yesterday, there is a brief window of spiritual opportunity during a Catholic freshman's first days on campus.  Let's pray, in these crucial opening days of the fall semester, that hundreds of thousands of Catholic college students will join with good Catholic classmates and organizations and, most importantly, will stay joined with Jesus Christ, His Church and His Sacraments.

(See Susan Klemond's article in The Catholic Spirit, "Serra program keeps college students connected to faith": www.thecatholicspirit.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3275&Itemid=134)

Monday, August 23, 2010

College Students and the Parish, Part One: Off to College, Off the Radar?

This week I will be discussing the place of the parish in supporting the faith of its members who are away at college.

First, the obvious, and unfortunate, fact: Most parishes take little interest in the spiritual growth of their college-age parishioners, especially those who are residing at a university away from home.  "Isn't that what those Newman Centers are for?"  Well, yes ... if the student ever finds his or her way to the Newman Center.  Many a young Catholic who was dragged to church in high school by his parents has not developed the initiative, or the moral conviction, to keep going to Sunday Mass when no one is dragging them.  (And we will wait until next week to consider the growing percentage of Catholic parents who don't require their high school-age children to attend Mass.)

August Urgency: This very week, even as we type, there is a narrow "window" of time across America's universities, typically lasting just a few days, when freshmen are willing to make new friends in the residence hall, add new texting addresses, check out a campus club,  ... and put Mass into their regular Sunday schedule.  By this time next week, the window will be closed, the basic rhythm of weeknight studies and weekend partying will be set and, if Mass is not yet in the Sunday routine, it most likely never will be.

Tomorrow: Good news! Some creative initiatives to keep our college-age Catholics alive in the Faith.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Not Unimportant Side Point from Last Night's Mission Appeal Homily

In his Mission Appeal Homily on behalf of the wonderful "Voluntas Dei" institute of Catholic seminarians in India, Father James Burns briefly mentioned the parish churches of India that are packed for Mass on Sundays.

Many of us are aware of the very high rates of Mass attendance by Catholics in the Kerala region of India, as well as the large numbers of priestly and religious vocations there.  Until recently, it was not unusual to have nearly 100% of the parish present at every Sunday Mass and, if a parishioner did not show up, the congregation would go to his or her home afterwards to see if they were ill. As recently as 20 years ago, it was estimated that 1 out of every 50 adult Catholic men in India was a priest or religious brother.  (By that reckoning, my Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis would have nearly 4,000 priests and brothers, which is, well, a few more than we currently have...)

Do the Catholics of Kerala have a secret that we don't know about?  Not really.  In fact, these astounding statistics, sadly, are in decline much like those in the United States over the past 40 years, due especially to secularizing tendencies and a steady decline in the size of Indian Catholic families.

Nevertheless, there is a salutary custom that we should discover, or rediscover: the home visit.  Indian Catholics report to me that nearly every Catholic family could expect a weekly visit by their parish priest.  If he did not visit their particular home each week, he would visit a neighboring family, and the nearby families would also gather at that home for an evening of prayer, catechesis, and informal hospitality. 

Consider the impact this has had on vocations!  Even here in the United States, I can often tell the difference between families who have had priests visit their homes and those who have not.  There is a relaxed yet respectful tone, the children are confident and attentive in the priest's presence, the parents find it natural to steer the conversation toward topics that will be interesting and spiritually beneficial to their sons and daughters.

It can be a challenge for parish priests to make regular home visits.  But it can also be an enormous blessing.  Just ask the Catholics of India.

[To listen to Father Burns' Homily, click www.transfigurationmn.org/worship/Audio.Homily.htm.]

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lord, I Am Not Worthy that You Should Enter under My Roof

Do our parishioners celebrate Mass humbly?  An unusual question, perhaps.  We more typically discuss liturgical participation in terms of reverence or prayerfulness or piety.  Nevertheless, the question remains: Do the liturgies at our parish have a humble, and humbling, quality?  Are parishioners brought to greater humility by attending Mass?  Should they?

Humility towards God has sometimes been described as a virtue by which we know who we are, and know Who we are not, and then proceed to live accordingly.  The Mass is a sublime encounter with the thrice-Holy God, and in that encounter we acknowledge our sins before Him, we praise Him, we listen to Him and obey Him, we offer ourselves to Him through the Perfect Offering and Sacrifice of Christ Jesus to God the Father.  We receive Him under our roof, unworthy as we are.


A congregation filled with parishioners who have not bothered to go to Confession for a long time cannot but feel a jarring contrast between the contrition implied and required within the Liturgy, and the resistance they have offered towards God's rich mercy waiting for them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  To relieve this tension, some parishes simply downgrade the humble, suppliant aspect of the Eucharist, presuming that a "celebration" by its very nature must steer clear of humility, lest it be dampened by a gloomy, even emotionally unhealthy, tone.

And the less-than-felicitous result?  Fewer and fewer Catholics showing up to celebrate.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Daily Mass Readings as an Examination of Conscience

The Word of God is "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). That sword is more than capable of piercing our sinful minds and hearts, shedding light upon the spiritual and moral darkness of our souls.

Today's Responsorial Psalm for the Memorial of Saint Bernard, Psalm 119, is an extended meditation on fidelity to God's word: "How shall a young man be faultless in his way?  By keeping to your words. With all my heart I seek you; let me not stray from your commands" (Ps 119: 10-11).

There are many fine ways to make an examination of conscience.  Certainly a review of the Ten Commandments is the most common one.  A consideration of our thoughts, words, and deeds in light of the virtues and vices is another.  Let us approach the daily readings at Mass as yet another trustworthy way to prepare ourselves for a good Confession.

As I taught seminarians over the past few years, I discovered something that every teacher has long recognized, namely, that there is great power in the statement, "This will be on the exam."  Suddenly, as if awakening from slumber, the students reach for their pens to jot down the words just uttered.  "Uh, Father, would you mind repeating that?"

On Judgment Day, God's Word will be a most relevant topic for examination.  Let us examine ourselves now in the light of that Word, and hasten to Confession.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Penitence within the Mass

In our postings over the last few days concerning confessions before Mass and confessions after Mass, we have not mentioned the importance of penitence within the Mass itself.  Yet there it is, the gateway to the Liturgy. 

Some Catholics, including those with liturgical duties, seem reluctant to allow the Penitential Rite at the beginning of every Mass to make its presence known and felt.  In particular, the Confiteor prayer ("I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters...") is often left out.  Granted, within the Penitential Rite, the Confiteor is not required, but why would we skip it?  Because our parishioners don't need it?  Because they only need it during Lent?  Because penitence mars the proper spirit of the Liturgy?

Preparations for the implementation of the revised Roman Missal in the coming months will provide a great opportunity to preach and teach about the Penitential Rite in general, and about the Confiteor in particular.  If many Catholics today feel awkward about "beseeching" God, it's no surprise that we're a bit awkward about pleading for His pardon.

Let's face the facts: Our God is all-Holy and all-Merciful.  We are not so holy, and we need His mercy so very much.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Confessions after Mass #3: Never Underestimate the Impact of a Focused Weekday Homily

Like most pastors, I love the "daily Mass crowd."  I appreciate the opportunity to celebrate Mass with them day after day, preaching to them on a consistent and consecutive basis.  In a daily Mass homily, the priest does not need to "swing for the fences."  Rather, he seeks to offer a "nugget" of truth from the Readings of the Day, or from the Saint or Feast of the Day. 

Specifically, the weekday homily should lead to three "R's": Reflection, response, and (this is the main point of my post today) repentance.  It is tempting to settle for a homiletical nugget that is a mere biblical factoid, dug up the night before from a commentary or an internet "homily helper."  For example, in today's Gospel from Matthew 20, concerning the laborers who begin to work at different times of the day yet receive an equal wage from the landowner at the end of the day, the pastor naturally tends to ask himself, "Is there anything interesting or curious about this passage?"  Better, however, to ask a different question, "Lord, how might today's readings be a two-edged sword, opening the minds and hearts of the parishioners to your piercing truth, leading them to a concrete and decisive response, to a change of heart, to repentance?"

A good daily homily brings a clear, focused word that the hearer can reflect upon and respond to that day. The Hebrew word for "meditate" is related to a word used to describe a cow chewing its cud, bringing the food back up from its stomachs to draw additional sustenance out of what has already been chewed. This is perhaps not an image that goes well with one's morning cup of coffee. Yet this curious origin of the word "meditate" teaches us about the appropriate response to God's Word: Not giving it a quick, breezy hearing, but rather a slow, deliberate consideration, over and over again.

The weekday homily should typically conclude with a concrete application or directive.  "As you go through the rest of your day, pay attention to how many times you become jealous of the good things that are happening with your family members or co-workers."  "The Lord tells us in today's Gospel that He is generous.  Ask the Lord for a spirit of gratitude today.  Specifically, find at least one opportunity each hour of the day today to give thanks to the Lord."  "Consider making a good confession today after Mass or tomorrow before Mass, asking God to forgive you for any jealousy and ingratitude in your heart."

Don't allow the daily Mass homily to remain at the level of the ethereal.  Give your parishioners something to chew on!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Confessions after Mass: Is It Confession That They Want?

As I noted yesterday, many pastors have become wary of hearing confessions after daily Mass on a regular basis.

The principal reason is this: Confessions after Mass have a tendency to become extended spiritual direction or counseling sessions, and sometimes a rather small circle of parishioners, including those with significant emotional and psychological needs, or an unhealthy attachment to the priest, tend to take over this time slot.

The pastor should first assess whether he is providing sufficient time before Mass for confessions. If he is not hearing confessions throughout the scheduled time before Mass, yet finds a significant number of people wishing to make their confession afterwards, this may be a sign that parishioners are developing a two-tiered approach: a quick sacramental “clean-up” before Mass, or a lengthy conversation in the Confessional afterwards.

The pastor who has scheduled confessions after Mass may then wish to do two things: First, offer a simple explanation from the pulpit concerning the differences between confession, spiritual direction, and counseling, perhaps expressing a willingness to offer spiritual direction or counseling -- or to refer parishioners to qualified Catholic spiritual directors or counselors -- but at a different time and place than the Confessional. Second, the pastor may address these issues directly in the Confessional with a penitent who seems to want something more than, or different than, the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

All of this having been said, there is still great value in offering confessions after Mass. More about this tomorrow.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Sacrament of Reconciliation in Today's Parish: Confessions after Mass?

In a recent post, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, moderator of the highly respected and widely read blog, “What Does the Prayer Really Say?” (www.wdtprs.com/blog/), commented on the infrequency of scheduled confessions at many Catholic parishes today (see “Stingy schedule for confessions in parishes and ‘New Evangelization,’”August 7). The number of responses to Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s article -- more than 125 at last count --- indicate that, at the least, he has hit a nerve.

This week I will offer several articles about the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the life of the parish. Today, I begin a 3-part consideration of whether to schedule confessions after Mass.

First, a case study: During the past few years, as Rector of Saint John Vianney College Seminary on the campus of the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, I offered a 9:30 p.m. Mass on Sunday evenings for students on campus. The “Last-Chance” Mass grew from a small handful of UST football players and their girlfriends to a weekly attendance in the 250-300 range.

After each Mass I would hear confessions, and plenty of them. I will restrict my comments about the contents of those confessions. Nevertheless, let me be clear: these were not choirboys or choirgirls lining up for the Sacrament of Penance. Moreover, it was clear that the preaching at the Mass, on topics near and dear to undergraduates with their many and diverse temptations and moral struggles, along with the power of the Mass itself to lift minds and hearts to God, brought even the most brutish of souls to a conviction of sin and a desire for God’s mercy.

Is this the ordering needed in our day: Mass and preaching first, and then Confessions?  Spiritually, we must strike while the iron is hot. If Christ is convicting souls at Mass, why would we make that soul wait a day, or a week, before obtaining forgiveness and peace of soul?

The custom of hearing confessions before Mass, but not after Mass, has its reasons. But we now are faced with an enormous apostolic challenge and opportunity to bring many souls back to God, through ardent preaching followed by the immediate availability of the Sacrament of Penance. Why would we stir hearts and minds with a diagnosis, then dawdle in offering a spiritual cure? Yes, there might be some advantages in the person reflecting upon their sins for a few days before making their confession. But we are rapidly becoming an attention-deficit-disorder culture, and many Catholics live their lives,including their lives of moral reflection, fifteen minutes at a time.

There are certainly challenges in scheduling confessions after Mass, and most any pastor can tell you all about those challenges. (More about that tomorrow.) Nevertheless, to the dictum, “A good Confession before the worthy reception of Communion," we may now wish to add, “And a good Confession soon after hearing God's Word concerning sin, judgment, and the mercy of God.”

Tomorrow: Learning a lesson from the old parish missions.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why I Preached What I Preached Last Evening

[To listen to the Homily, please go to www.transfigurationmn.org/worship/Audio.Homily.htm, and click the 8/14/10 link]

My chief point in the Homily was that most Catholics today don’t pay much attention to the Dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary because they don’t pay much attention to two other rather important facts: sin, and death. (Specifically, the fact that all of us are sinners, and the fact that all of us are going to die as one of the effects of original sin).

The singular privilege given to Mary by God, to be conceived without stain of original sin and, thus, to be assumed body and soul into heaven without mortal corruption at the end of her earthly life, means little to those Catholics today who believe, first, that everyone jumps right from the nursing home bed into heaven (well, everyone except perhaps Hitler and, this year, various petroleum corporate executives), and, second, that death is not at all a terrible thing to behold, so long as one has chosen a trustworthy mortician.

The second half of the Hail Mary is a most succinct reminder of the twin realities of sin and death, and of Mary's preeminent intercessory role in the face of those realities.  I chose to mention my hospital visits in the hope that, by hearing about the two dying Catholics straining to pray the Hail Mary at the hour of their death, the listeners might soberly reflect upon that moment at the consummation of their own lives on earth. (One woman told me after Mass, “Father, that story made me shiver.” “Good,” I replied.)

One final note: We celebrated the Baptism of baby Aiden James during the Mass, and thus the reference to him in the Homily.  It's never too early to get the little ones praying their Hail Mary's...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What Would YOU Preach about Tomorrow on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary?

I expect that you might hope for one or both of the following to be included in the Homily:

1. A clear explanation of the Assumption. Many Catholics do not even know the basics about this Dogma.

2. A clear explanation about the significance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to our Catholic Faith, not only with regard to her Assumption, but in general. A combination of weak catechesis regarding Mary inside the Church, and a lingering – and sometimes still rabid -- antipathy among non-Catholics towards Mary and her crucial place in Christ's salvific work, requires fervent and focused preaching about Our Lady on a regular basis from the pulpit.

I will include both of these elements in my Homily, but I will also consider two reasons why many Catholics seem so unmoved by Mary's Assumption. Please check in again tomorrow and listen to the audio of my Homily. (A couple of advance hints: Most people today don’t get close to dead bodies a’mouldering anymore, and most people today consider themselves sufficiently free from the taint of any original or actual sin that might keep them from leaping directly into the bosom of Abraham.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Good Confessions, Good Vocations

Each Friday this Summer, I am devoting my Homily at our Parish’s daily Mass to some aspect of the Sacrament of Penance.

Today, I wish to offer a simple point: Good confessions lead to good vocations.

There are many good reasons to spend a few minutes before Our Eucharistic Lord in Church immediately after making one’s confession. This, of course, is the time when many pray their penance. It is a time to quiet our souls in a state of grace and ask, “Lord, is there anything that you wish to show me, to teach me, to change in me?” The Holy Spirit will often bring us light about how to avoid the near occasion of sin the next time, how to take practical steps toward virtuous habits, how to “amend my life.”

“Lord, in your light, we see light.” (Psalm 36:9)

In light of Christ’s teaching in today’s Gospel concerning those who “have renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven,” I wish to note a vocational component of the Sacrament of Penance that often goes unrecognized. That is, a person who has been absolved of sin is now brought to a place where sin and its effects are not clouding his spiritual vision as they had previously. If I am steeped in unchastity or self-concern or irreverence, then it is difficult, even laughable, for me to fathom the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. But moral freedom leads me to hear Christ’s call more freely.

Specifically, a good confession is the source of a good vocation in at least three ways:

1. God has forgiven me! I recognize His divine, generous, merciful love in this confession, and now my heart wishes to offer generous love toward Him in return.

2. God has forgiven me! Now I wish for others to taste and see this same mercy, perhaps by means of a priestly vocation, through which I might be a channel of God’s ministry of reconciliation to countless others.

3. God has forgiven me! Even though my sins cling to me so closely, and I consider myself far from ready to enter a vocation of celibacy, of religious poverty, chastity, and obedience … nevertheless, I have witnessed Christ Jesus beginning a good work in me in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a work that might one day be brought to perfection!

If your parish is attempting to promote vocations among your young people, don’t waste your time on slick and silly programs. Get the youth back into God’s good graces. Get them back within earshot of the Holy Spirit.

Get them back into the Confessional.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reason #3: The Third Commandment in Slow Dissolve

The decline in Sunday Mass attendance among Catholics is part of a larger phenomenon: the decline in Sunday itself.  A couple of generations ago, many rural and big-city Catholics had small closets in their bedrooms, containing two hooks: one to hold their working clothes, the other to hold their "good" clothes, their Sunday clothes.  Two hooks, two parts of the week.  Nowadays, Catholics get dressed up for work, and dress down for Sunday.  The "weekend" was foreign to generations of Catholic farm families.  Instead, there were six days to work  --  and very hard work at that, especially during planting and harvesting seasons  --  and then there were Sundays.  The crops were still sitting outside those farmhouse windows, demanding attention, but it was Sunday, and that meant church, leisure, and visits to the folks down the road.  What a remarkable, shared cultural and spiritual commitment!

And now it's gone.

Some Catholics work at their jobs on Sundays, but most Catholics who skip Mass are not skipping because Mass interferes with their employment, but because Mass interferes with their leisure.  We have retained the secular hulk of the Lord's Day --- time off of work  --- but we have forgotten why we are resting, and we have forgotten Who gave us this rest.  Commentators were intrigued that Pope John Paul II had 100 pages of things to say about Sundays in his 1998 Apostolic Letter, Dies Domini ("The Lord's Day").

When was the last time our parish priests had anything at all to say about the Lord's Day?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reason #2: If We Just Ignore that Nasty Little Statistic, Perhaps It Will Go Away

Recent studies have determined that between 25% and 30% of American Catholics are at Mass on any given Sunday.  (Statistics on Sunday Mass attendance vary a great deal by region: Catholics in western Kentucky and the Dakotas, for example, have been clocked at 75% - 80%.  At the other end would be the Archdiocese of Boston, which reports attendance rates of 12% - 15%.)

Imagine truancy rates such as these in our schools. 

But life in the parish goes on, as it always has.  There seems to be more than enough work to keep a pastor busy.  And let us be thankful for the folks who do show up for Mass.  Perhaps we'll make a little joke about "C & E" Catholics at the over-crowded Christmas and Easter Liturgies. At least we're not like those crazy evangelical and fundamentalist churches, using scare tactics and emotional salesmanship to fill the pews.

When was the last time you heard your pastor say, "Please do everything you can to get your family members back to Mass next week?"  "Wouldn't it be great to see a hundred more of our parishioners back in Church?"  "If you know someone who needs to talk to a priest before he or she would be willing to come back to the Church, I am eager to meet with them."

Jesus said (and says even now), "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you do not have life within you."  (John 6:53)  Jesus the Good Shepherd left the ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep.  What sort of shepherd is unconcerned that seventy-five of the one hundred in his flock are astray on any given Sunday?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reason #1: A Distaste for Obligation

"When I was young, I went to Mass because I had to.  Now, I go to Mass because I want to." 

It is rare these days to hear a pastor declare, "You must go to Mass."  Actually, it is rare these days to hear a pastor declare that you must do just about anything. 

Sometimes the phrasing is softened for contemporary sensibilities: "We are to do what God has asked of us."  We "invite" our fellow Catholics to do this-or-that.  Sometimes a prophetic or vocational dimension is highlighted: "We are called to act with justice, we are called to love tenderly."  (I have daydreamed about taking this popular hymn and rewriting it for the First Precept of the Church: "We are called to Mass on Sundays, we are called to cease laboring...")

It is not that priests consider Sunday Mass to be unimportant.  The Eucharist is all-important to most every priest.  However, the element of obligation strikes many priests as well as their parishioners as an outdated and immature notion, as something more fitting for children than for adults, a view of Christian discipleship that is contrary to the God-given freedom to choose whether and how to worship God.

Still, is it not "right" to give Him thanks and praise?  And if, indeed, we are called to "act with justice," is it not an act of justice toward God  --  who has created us, redeemed us, and sanctified us  --  that we offer Him fitting worship?  There are many obligations in life  -- fidelity to one's spouse, for example  -- which need not stunt a mature, free, and sincere self-offering. 

There is no good reason why we cannot, or should not, worship God both because we wish to and because we ought to.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A "Good" Parish: A Parish Where the Parishioners Go to Mass

The first of the seven "Precepts of the Church" is this: "To attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, and to rest from servile works."  As a precept and, in fact, the first of the seven, this directive should certainly be prominent in the mission statement of every parish or, at least, in the mission itself.  A parish with many parishioners attending Sunday Mass and few parishioners attending parish committees is a better parish than one with the reverse pattern.  This is not to say that attending Sunday Mass and attending parish committees are mutually exclusive.  Nevertheless, I sometimes hear parishes described as "vibrant" and "active" and "alive," and yet only 25% of its parishioners attend Mass on Sunday. 

Tomorrow I will review the three principal reasons why many pastors and parishes today are reluctant to say, "You must attend Sunday Mass."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Why I Preached What I Preached Last Night

Each Sunday, I will post on this blog a link to the audio recording of the homily that I preached the evening before at Transfiguration Parish's 5:00 p.m. Mass. I will also provide a few short background comments about my homily, especially for the benefit of seminarians who are preparing for their future preaching ministry in the parishes.

You will find the audio of last evening's (8-7-10) Gospel (Luke 12:32-48) and Homily at the following link:


Here are a few comments:

1. Most parishioners have become dulled to the urgent message of Christ Jesus concerning His return, and the judgment that will accompany that return. My opening comments about a Second Coming just 7 hours away was meant to stir an attentiveness to the fact that, indeed, Christ could come at any moment.

2. For many listeners, the various parables and declarations by the Lord concerning His Return tend to bleed together in their minds, boiling down to some generic point such as, "Jesus is coming, so look busy." But this parable has a quite pointed message regarding faithful stewardship for anyone who has been entrusted with the pastoral care of others.

3. I am convinced that the twin evils of abuse and neglect are the constant temptations for all in pastoral leadership. Even the most recent sexual abuse crisis has shown a spotlight on these: the abuse of minors by some priests, religious, and bishops, and the neglect by some church leaders in dealing with these matters with vigilance and alacrity. This is a key text by our Lord regarding these still-pressing matters, and the preacher should not dodge it.

4. However, the preacher must find some concrete ways to bring this point home to all of the hearers, all of whom have some pastoral care for others within their vocations and their daily responsbilities.

5. The tie-in in my Homily to the youth in the congregation was a rather weak one, but I am still glad I did it. Most young people at church on Sunday presume that the homily is for the parents and grandparents, but not for them. They typically "zone out" unless the preacher explicitly addresses them somehow. The priest does not need to resort to silliness or condescension when addressing the young people. Rather, he needs to communicate the Church's conviction that the young people, especially those who are confirmed, are to be just as attentive to God's Word as the older members of the congregation.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Is Every Parish a Good Parish?

This question, of course, leads to a more fundamental one: What makes a parish “good”?

Subjectively, a good parish is perhaps one in which a majority of parishioners think that it is good. But this is not saying much, at least not these days. Today, if someone does not like his parish, he will often switch to another parish that is more to his liking, or he may drop out of participating in any parish altogether. Thus, most everyone today who cares to stick around thinks rather highly of the place.

Not that Catholics think highly of all of the parishes in town. Many of the folks at Saint Martha’s may be quite positive about their own parish but rather critical of Saint Mary’s down the street. And the feelings may be mutual.

Is there anything more to be said about what makes a parish good besides the positive self-assessment of its parishioners? Might a parish be a very good one, even if some of its parishioners don’t realize it?

And if every parish is good, then why do such a small percentage of today’s Catholics participate in any parish at all?

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Feast, and a Beginning.

"God our Father, in the transfigured glory of Christ your Son, you strengthen our faith by confirming the witness of your prophets, and show us the splendor of your beloved sons and daughters. As we listen to the voice of your Son, help us to become heirs to eternal life with him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever."
(Feast of the Transfiguration, Opening Collect)

This blog is dedicated to the transfigured glory of Christ and the strengthening of our faith as priests, seminarians, and lay faithful. We will give special attention to fostering an authentic and comprehensive renewal of Catholic parishes in our time. I send festal greetings to all of you from Transfiguration Catholic Church in Oakdale, Minnesota, in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, on this, the 71st Anniversary of the founding of our parish.

"Christ Jesus our Lord, shine in us! Christ Jesus our Lord, shine through us!"